More precise problems with the theoretical underpinnings of objectivist economic

From: Jeff Bone (
Date: Sat Apr 14 2001 - 14:05:36 PDT

So here's the heart of the problem in objectivism. Objectivism proceeds from the
fundamental assumption that individuals possess certain rights, and property rights
naturally proceed from those rights. I have *absolutely* no problem with that
thought, I'll defend it to the bitter end. Further, objectivism stands against all
forms of collectivism in principle. I'm down with that, too.

Problem is, that's actually only lip-service for the objectivists; the
objectivists toss that latter principle out like 5 day old guacamole the moment
they start talking about business. To the objectivist, there are good tribes and
bad tribes. Tribes of identity (other than the Objectivist Tribe) are bad and
evil, while (some) tribes of intent are good and proper. The objectivist tips his
hand as a conservative in radical clothing: corporations are universally good
while unions are considered generally coercive and evil.

In making economic arguments against antitrust, and in defending various other
capitalist principles, objectivism implicitly grants to certain collectives rights
that are only morally justified *in their own philosophy* as individual rights ---
namely, property rights. It is implicitly assumed that it is good and proper and
morally justified for corporations to own physical and intellectual property in
trust for its owners.

There's an inevitable contradiction, here. More extreme capitalists will argue
that all tribes are bad; corporations are bad and evil; how can a non-entity, a
collective, have the same rights as a person? And that's a reasonable argument.

My intuitive sense is that there's a disconnect between the long-term assumptions
of free markets, the existance and lifecycles of corporate entities which have the
same rights of property as individuals, and individual rights. I think we either
have to weaken our notion of property rights (specifically in the case of
intellectual property) OR dispense with the notion that corporations can own (at
least certain intangible) things.

This is particularly obvious in the IP case. With, say, a steam press, ownership
is quite apparent; either you've got it, or I've got it. Even the old saw
"possession is 9/10ths of the law" underscores this point. With IP, that's just
not the case. You can have it, and I can have it, too. So who owns it, in that

Our competitive picture would be very different if we had the notion that
corporations only, in essence, *lease* IP from their employees who produce it; if
an employee were to leave a company, part of the initial contract could be that the
corporation has a right to continue to nonexclusively license that IP in
perpetuity, but perhaps things would be better if the employee were to retain
ownership in perpetuity to the (intellectual) fruits of their labor. It's almost
guaranteed that if employees could walk with their codebases, Microsoft would have
more and better competition in those areas it arguably monopolizes now. Imagine
the entire Office group walking out the door, codebase in hand. Oh, happy day! :-)

This question resembles the classical libertarian problem of whether or not a
person should be able to sell themselves into slavery. The hard-line answer is
"yes, of course." So the analogy to this argument is "yes, of course an employee
should be able to sell away his IP rights in return for employment." The problems
are: who is he selling that IP *to,* and what does it mean to transfer ownership
of something that can inherently be copied infinitely for zero cost?

Just some thoughts to frame the discussion. I don't have an answer, yet, but I
think we're managing to hit most of the questions. ;-)


This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : Sun Apr 29 2001 - 20:25:47 PDT